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Time's Turnings  by daw the minstrel

Many thanks to Nilmandra for beta reading this chapter for me.


6. Dale

Maltanaur made his silent way around the edge of the campsite, extending his senses looking for something unexpected and not finding anything. He heard only the usual nighttime noises: the rustling of small animals, the hoot of an owl, the sleepy night song of the trees. He hoisted himself up onto a branch and leaned back against the tree trunk, with one leg dangling and the other drawn up against his chest. These woods were so full of life and peaceful compared to the trees to the south where he spent most of his time as Eilian’s bodyguard. He could feel his body responding to life around him, relaxing and sliding into harmony with it. He was almost sorry that his watch would end soon. Sleeping seemed a waste of time when he could be in this part of the forest.

On the ground beneath him, Beliond stirred and then pushed aside his blanket and sat up and glanced at him. Maltanaur lifted his hand in silent acknowledgment and then waited patiently while Beliond, rose, stretched, and disappeared in the direction of the stream. He came back with water still dripping from the strands of hair around his face. He strapped on his quiver and sword, picked up his bow, and then leapt to settle on the branch next to Maltanaur.

“I have found nothing amiss,” Maltanaur murmured, and Beliond nodded and then turned his face up to the stars. Maltanaur studied him. He had known Beliond a long time but did not often have a chance to see him. He was willing to forgo a little sleep in favor of a few moments of talk with someone who was not only an old friend, but also one of the few people in Arda who would understand what it was like to watch over one of the king’s sons. “How are you?” Maltanaur asked, keeping his voice low.

Beliond smiled slightly but kept his eyes on the stars. “Bored for most of my time and terrified for the rest.”

Maltanaur laughed. “I understand. The Eastern Border Patrol must be a good deal tamer than what you are used to, and minding Legolas is probably a good deal more exciting, at least if he is anything like his brother. Eilian takes it into his head to do things that I would never have predicted. Or rather I suppose I might be able to predict them now, but it has taken me a good many years to get to this point.”

“Legolas does well enough,” Beliond said gruffly. “He is good with a bow, and he is willing to learn.”

Maltanaur looked down to hide his smile. He had watched Beliond and Legolas together that day, and while he had seen how Legolas chafed under Beliond’s urging of a caution that seemed excessive even to Maltanaur, he had also been quietly amused at the obvious affection Beliond felt for Eilian’s younger brother. And now he could hear the pride Beliond took in his charge.

“Anyone can see that Legolas is serious about being a warrior,” Maltanaur agreed. “And he has far more sense that Eilian had at that age, although Eilian settled down once he was promoted.”

“From what I have heard, there was a great deal of settling down to do,” Beliond said dryly.

Maltanaur tried not to take offense on Eilian’s behalf. What Beliond said was true enough, after all. “I know Ithilden hesitated to do it,” he said. “He talked to me about it because he was worried that he might be burdening Eilian too young. But being made captain was good for Eilian. That promotion showed him that Ithilden believed he could rely on him. Now Legolas seems cut from a different cloth. Todith appears to trust him implicitly, even though he is young.”

Beliond frowned. “Legolas is trustworthy with what he knows, but he lacks experience, and the young tend to be overconfident and to rush into danger they do not even know is there.”

Maltanaur thought fleetingly about Beliond’s son, who had joined whole-heartedly in Oropher’s wild charge at Dagorlad and died before he had time to bloody his sword. “Legolas seems level-headed to me,” he observed mildly.

Beliond grimaced and slid to the ground. “I should make a round of the campsite.”

Maltanaur climbed down next to him. He looked up at the thick spangling of stars. “The day will be fair,” he said. He smiled to himself. “I think I will get another hour or two of sleep before we have to escort the two young ones to Dale. I quite look forward to it.” He started toward his bed roll, hearing Beliond snort softly behind him.


At the edge of the trees, Legolas halted his horse next to Eilian’s. Ahead lay a patchwork of fields, green with the new growth of spring. They stretched toward the lone mountain, whose arms reached to either side, covered in the deep green of pine trees. And at the mountain’s foot, in the embrace of a bend in the River Celduin, lay the town of Dale. Its gates stood open, and on foot or in carts, a steady trickle of people passed through them on a road that ran some distance to their right. As Legolas sat with Tavor prancing eagerly beneath him, he heard the silvery sound of a bell drifting toward him, joined almost immediately by the deeper note of a second bell, then a third, and finally a whole chorus.

“What is it?” he demanded, edging his hand toward his bow. “Are they sounding an alarm?”

“Be easy,” said Maltanaur from Eilian’s other side. “They use the bells to tell everyone when an hour has come. It is a custom of many Men.”

Legolas blinked. He had never heard bells on his visits to Esgaroth. “They cannot tell time on their own?” he asked uncertainly. He did not want to sound insulting.

Maltanaur grinned. “It would seem not.”

“The noise is a nuisance when you are trying to sleep,” growled Beliond. “But then Men do not seem particularly sensitive to noise.” Legolas glanced at him. Beliond must have been in other Men’s towns then.

“It must be a market day,” Eilian observed, regarding the people moving in and out of the gates. Legolas nodded his agreement, reassured by the realization that he had seen the busy marketplace of Esgaroth and, now that Eilian mentioned it, recognized the scene. “We should skirt these fields and take the road,” Eilian said, and they nudged their horses into motion again.

Perhaps because it was market day, the fields were empty for the most part. One Man, who was working his way down a row of plants with a hoe, stopped to watch them pass, but they saw no houses. Legolas assumed that the farmers who worked these fields lived inside the protection of the town walls. When they reached the road, though, they encountered a number of people, almost all of whom stepped aside to give them a wide berth. Legolas had found that Men tended to be nervous around Elves, and he could not tell if these folk were more uneasy than those he had encountered in Esgaroth. Eilian ignored any signs of discomfort from the Men, lifting a hand and calling a greeting as they passed each small knot of people.

The guards at the gate watched their approach with wide eyes but said nothing as Eilian led the little group into the town. Immediately, Legolas was struck by a wave of noise and smells that seemed trapped inside the city walls. The market was spread before them just inside the gates. Stalls were set up along the street, and some goods were being sold from the windows of more permanent looking buildings. Some of those who had brought goods to market in carts had simply parked them in the street and were calling out descriptions of their wares from the carts’ lowered back gates. People’s voices seemed very loud to Legolas and the odor of unwashed Men, overripe vegetables, and manure clogged his nose. Once they were through the gates, the dirt road had changed to cobblestones and the noise of their own horses’ hooves added to the din. Tavor snorted and tossed his head, and Legolas patted his neck reassuringly.

They slowed their horses to a walk amid the crowd in the marketplace, and before many minutes had passed, Eilian dismounted. “Lead them,” he instructed, and the rest of them slid to the ground too. Legolas could see the wisdom in that course of action. They were less conspicuous and, more to the point, less threatening on foot.

Eilian stopped to speak to a merchant with an array of leather goods spread out on a table before him. Legolas watched with interest as his brother ignored the very pretty girl who stood next to the Man, despite the way she stared at him. “Can you tell us the way to the palace, good sir?” Eilian asked with a pleasant smile. Legolas raised an eyebrow. He had thought that Maltanaur’s description of the town was clear and was certain that if they kept on the street they were on, they would eventually see the palace down a road to their left.

The Man hesitated for only a second before he stepped out from behind his goods and pointed down the road. “You cannot miss it if you continue this way until you see the fountain and then look to your left.”

“Thank you,” Eilian said, still smiling, and probably much to his own surprise, the Man smiled back. Legolas suppressed a grin. Very few people could resist his brother when he was at his most charming. They started down the street again. “He was willing enough to be friendly given only a small push,” Eilian murmured under his breath to Legolas. “And she was pretty.”

Legolas laughed. “You really are behaving yourself admirably. I am impressed.”

Eilian grinned. “She was looking at you.”

Legolas could feel himself blushing a little. “Not when I saw her.”

Eilian laughed and patted him on the shoulder. “I see I have been neglecting your education.”

Legolas smiled but determinedly went back to examining the people around them. Although he would never have admitted it to Beliond, he found himself hard put to think like a warrior and keep on his guard. Anywhere he looked, something caught his attention. He saw a stall with carved toys similar to those he had found in the pack of the Man his patrol had encountered. Bright fabric hung from hooks and spilled over the counter of one stall, while baked goods sent a tempting aroma into the air from another.

Suddenly he stiffened, for the next stall sold metal ornaments, and behind the counter, selling the goods they had probably made, were two Dwarves. The Dwarves watched the Elves pass with a steady and not altogether friendly gaze. Legolas knew that his father had been trading with the Dwarves for a number of years now, but he also knew that Thranduil had never fully trusted them. He had expected to find few Dwarves in Dale because most of them had moved to the Grey Mountains, leaving only a small number living in the mountain that loomed over the town. And his expectations had been carried out. These were the first Dwarves he had seen, and he supposed he should not be surprised by their wariness. They trusted the Elves no more than Thranduil trusted them.

And the Dwarves were not the only people in the marketplace who were watching the Elves. As they continued through the market, every head turned and conversations flagged, leaving them in a small moving bubble of less noise. Eilian nodded in friendly greeting to those whose eye he caught, but his overtures were returned only cautiously.

Legolas scanned to either side of him more carefully now, aware that the town’s Mannish inhabitants were leery of his gaze. The unexpected sight of something green caught his attention, and he glanced at a shop that seemed to be selling herbs and spices. Bunches of herbs were suspended from the top of the window or lay on the ledge that had been created when the horizontal shutter had been let down. The shop’s owner leaned against the window’s edge with his arms crossed over his chest and his eyes narrowed. Legolas was seized with a wave of instant dislike so strong that his skin crawled.

With a self-awareness that had become automatic under years of his father’s discipline, he immediately groped for a reason for his gut reaction, and almost as immediately, he knew what it was. The shop owner was swarthy and broadly built. In fact, he looked much like an Easterling who had once held Legolas captive in an attempt to force Thranduil into an agreement to allow Men of the east to establish a foothold in Esgaroth. The Easterling had taken a whip to Legolas’s back, and even now, his mouth grew dry at the thought of the hours he had spent in that tent. Stop it, he told himself. This Man is not Karik. To judge him by a resemblance he cannot help is to let prejudice overcome your good sense. As he wrestled his gaze away from the herb shop, his eye was caught by Beliond, who strode at the front of the group of Elves.

When they had entered the town, Beliond had moved forward to be in the lead, while Maltanaur had dropped back a few feet, leaving Legolas to walk at Eilian’s side between the two keepers. And now Legolas saw that Beliond too was looking at the herb merchant. Legolas could see his keeper only in profile, but it seemed to Legolas that his gaze was sharp, and Legolas tensed.

Whether he sensed Legolas’s discomfort or was disturbed by the commotion of the marketplace, Tavor chose that moment to prance nervously to one side, forcing an older couple to dodge out of his way. “I beg your pardon,” he cried to the couple, and Beliond looked around and frowned at him. Legolas soothed the animal, coaxing him back next to Eilian, who raised an eyebrow at him but said nothing. His face flaming, Legolas went back to scanning the crowd in the marketplace.

Following the Man’s directions and the description of the town that Maltanaur had given the previous evening, they made their way to the end of the market and turned up the street to the palace. Legolas eyed the large stone building, whose tiled roof distinguished it from its thatch-roofed neighbors. As they led their horses toward it, the bells in the tower that crowned it rang again, making Tavor jump but lifting Legolas’s heart. The sound was merry, he decided and could not help smiling.

One of the door guards stepped forward to meet them, his face wary. “I am Eilian Thranduilion,” Eilian greeted him, “come from the Elvenking to wait upon King Bram.”

The Man blinked, glanced at the rest of them, and then seemed to brace himself. He stepped aside. “If you will wait in the hall, my lord, I will send word to see if the king is within. My companion will see to your horses.” The other guard moved toward the horses and then abruptly stopped, apparently realizing that they had no reins.

“The horses will wait in the courtyard if they are left undisturbed,” Eilian told him. “See to it, Legolas.”

Legolas grimaced. He assumed Eilian had set him this task because of the problems Tavor had caused. Over the years, Legolas had occasionally seen his brother slip into his role as captain, and Eilian was plainly in it now, even with Legolas. It vexed him to be making such a poor showing. As the guard led Eilian and Maltanaur into the palace, Legolas swiftly gathered the four horses and led them into the small space Eilian had indicated. A water trough stood there, and the horses willingly trotted up to it and began to drink. “Wait here,” he murmured to them and gave Tavor a reassuring pat. He would work with the horse more once he had returned to his patrol, he vowed.

He turned to find Beliond lingering near the front door, waiting for him, while exchanging suspicious glances with the second guard. Legolas hastened to join his keeper, and the two of them entered the palace to see Eilian and Maltanaur standing in a large, square hallway, marked off from what lay beyond by an elaborately carved wooden screen.

As Legolas and Beliond entered, the guard came around the screen. “The king will see you now, my lord.” He gestured toward the screen, and Legolas was following Eilian toward it, when the guard stepped in front of him. “Your guards can wait here.”

Eilian exchanged a look with Maltanaur, whose face was impassive. “My attendant comes with me,” Eilian said, indicating Maltanaur. His eyes went beyond Legolas to Belond and then came back to settle on Legolas’s face. “You and Beliond go and enjoy the market. Come back in an hour.” Legolas choked back a protest. He did not like leaving Eilian here, but he had to admit that Maltanaur had kept his brother safe for many years now and was likely to be able to do it here too, particularly when the Men knew who Eilian was and knew that Legolas and Beliond would be back. Besides, he recognized what he was being asked to do: Eilian wanted him and Beliond to continue assessing the temper of the town.

He drew a deep breath. “Yes, my lord,” he said. Eilian smiled slightly and then turned and walked away, with Maltanaur close behind, ignoring the Mannish guard’s faint protests. Using every bit of self-discipline he possessed, Legolas walked out of the door and into the afternoon sunshine.

“Maltanaur will keep him safe,” murmured Beliond in his ear, and Legolas looked to find him next to him.

“I know,” he said stiffly. His keeper did not often offer comfort, and Legolas was always surprised and sometimes resentful when he did. He was, after all, not a child. But I am being childish, he though. He looked ruefully at Beliond and relaxed a little. “Thank you.”

With a faint smile on his face, Beliond looked down the street toward the market. “Let us see what we can learn about the Men of Dale,” he said. “Stay close to me.”

Legolas rolled his eyes. “Yes, Nana.” Beliond made a low growling noise, but, with the palace guards watching them, he merely strode off down the street. Suppressing a grin, Legolas followed.

As they made their way down the street, three Men rode into the courtyard of a large building on their left, and a boy came running out to take charge of their horses, while they pulled packs from the animals’ backs and made their noisy way inside. Legolas turned his head to keep watching even after he and Beliond had passed the building. “Is that an inn?” he asked. He had heard of such buildings and knew there was one in Esgaroth, but he had never seen it and certainly never been inside one. When he and the Elves he knew traveled, they either camped in the woods or stayed as guests in the homes of other Elves. The idea of sleeping in a public building seemed odd and vaguely exciting to him.

“Yes, it is,” Beliond said. “Stay out of it.”

Legolas snapped his head around and frowned at him. “I do not recall suggesting that we enter it, although it would probably be an excellent place to learn the mood of the town’s inhabitants.”

“If you want to see Men at their worst, an inn is a good place to do that,” Beliond said. “But I would prefer not to have to try to keep an eye on you in one.”

Legolas blew out an exasperated breath. Beliond made him sound like a troublesome elfling. He was strongly tempted to turn back and enter the inn, but Eilian had told them to spend this hour in the marketplace, and Legolas reluctantly concluded that that was what he should probably do.

They reentered the marketplace, strolling along trying to look casual while observing the actions of those around them. Legolas was careful not to look for too long at anyone so he would not increase their discomfort, and he smiled when he caught people’s eyes, sometimes surprising them into smiling back. He glanced at Beliond, who had drawn them toward the edge of the road and was walking in the shadow of the wall there. “Are you going to make no effort at all to be agreeable?” he asked in disgust.

Beliond lifted an eyebrow. “It would probably be best if we did not make ourselves too conspicuous,” he observed.

Legolas gave a short snort of laughter. “How do you propose we do that? We are the only Elves in the marketplace.” Beliond ignored him in favor of scanning the marketplace. A sudden burst of applause made him turn his head sharply, and Legolas swung around to see what had caused it. A short distance ahead of them, a small crowd was gathered. Although he was taller than most of the Men, Legolas could not see what they were looking at. Then, as he and Beliond drifted toward the little group, a bright red ball arced through the air, followed rapidly by another and then another.

Curious, Legolas peered between two Men to see a brightly dressed young Man in the center of the crowd. He was tossing three balls in the air and then from hand to hand. As Legolas watched, he lifted his right knee and shifted his hands so that the balls now passed underneath his leg. For a moment, all went well, and then he dropped one of the balls. He caught the other two and scooped up the dropped one as the people in the crowd applauded.

Legolas glanced at Beliond, trying to see if his keeper understood what was going on here. Why were the people applauding? Beliond smiled a little sarcastically and leaned close to whisper in Legolas’s ear. “Men call it juggling. They find it difficult to do.”

Legolas blinked. Any elfling over the age of ten could do what the juggler had just done. He turned back to find that the juggler had apparently noticed them, and the people in the crowd had now become aware of them too and were edging slightly away from them. The juggler took in the look on Beliond’s face, smiled, and reached into the bag that lay at his feet to produced three knives. The crowd drew a delighted collective breath and returned its attention to him.

With a flourish, the juggler spread the knives out to show them to his audience and then tossed them one by one into the air. They whirled and flashed in the sunshine as they spun into the air and back to the juggler’s hands. The eyes of the Men across from Legolas grew huge and round, and their mouths dropped open in obvious awe. Slowly and with infinite care, the juggler began inching his way toward Beliond, who stood with no one in front of him now. Legolas had to smother a laugh as he glanced from Beliond’s annoyed looking face to the juggler’s triumphant one.

Suddenly, to the astonishment of both Legolas and the juggler, Beliond snatched at a knife as it passed within a foot of his face, plucking it and then both of its fellows out of the air. Without missing a beat, he tossed all three into the air again and then unsheathed his own knife and added it to the arc of flashing blades.

Legolas had to bite his lip to keep from laughing at the looks on the faces of the crowd. Beliond could probably keep five knives in the air at once; Legolas could do that, and he had once seen Eilian toss six of them, although that little performance had taken place well out of sight of their father. Tossing too many knives occasionally led to injuries that were hard to explain to parents or officers.

With a flick of his wrist, Beliond gathered in the knives, sheathed his own, and held the other three out to the juggler. The people in the crowd burst into applause, and after a moment’s hesitation, the juggler bowed and took back his knives. Beliond fished a small coin out of his belt pouch, tossed it onto the blanket at the juggler’s feet, seized Legolas’s arm, and drew him down the street, with the laughter of the audience trailing after them.

“It would probably be best if we did not make ourselves too conspicuous,” Legolas repeated dryly.

Beliond shrugged. “I thought you wanted me to be agreeable. Besides,” he added with a straight face, “we are the only Elves in the marketplace.”

Legolas laughed at the gleam in his keeper’s eyes. He could not remember the last time he had seen Beliond so obviously enjoying himself. In companionable silence, the two of them made their way through the market. Suddenly, Legolas realized that they were once again near the herb shop whose owner had made him so uneasy when they passed it earlier. To his surprise, Beliond led the way to the window in which the herb seller still stood, his hooded eyes upon them. Reluctantly, Legolas followed.

“Good day,” Beliond greeted the Man and began poking through the small packets of herbs and spices on display. “The market is lively. Is it always so crowded?” Legolas stared at him. Beliond never engaged in small talk, and that he would do so with a Man startled Legolas.

“The market is usually a popular one,” the Man answered after a moment. His eyes flicked from Beliond to Legolas, paused, and then went back to Beliond again.

Suddenly, Legolas was aware of Beliond tensing slightly, so slightly that the Man probably did not notice. Beliond was fingering a piece of brown bark that he had picked up out of a little box. He studied it for a moment and then scanned the shelves behind the Man too. He looked down at the display again and dropped the bark. “I will take a handful of thyme,” he said, indicating a heap of leaves in a basket at his elbow. Legolas blinked and wondered what he was up to.

The merchant took the coin Beliond offered, wrapped the thyme in a twist of paper, and handed the packet to Beliond, who took it and then pointed to a jar of what looked liked small black pits. “You have pepper,” he observed casually. “I cannot afford to buy any today, but we may be back. Do you always have it?”

The merchant’s eyes narrowed. “Usually.”

Beliond nodded and turned away, jerking his head for Legolas to follow. “What was that all about?” Legolas asked as soon as they were out of earshot. “I am sure the thyme will come in handy if you want to cook for us all, but that cannot be why you bought it.”

Beliond hesitated and then grimaced. “He reminds me of the Balchoth. He looks like them, and he has spices that come from the east.”

Startled, Legolas turned his head to look at him. A sudden thought occurred to him. “Have you ever gone among the Easterlings? When you were working for my adar, I mean.”

Beliond gave him a wry smile. “I spent far more time among them than I like to think about.”

Not for the first time, Legolas thought that Beliond must find it tedious to guard him after the wide-ranging life he had led. He thought about the merchant again. “We should investigate the herb seller,” he said.

“What do you mean, ‘investigate’?” Beliond asked acerbically. “And what do you mean, ‘we’?” We will tell Eilian about what we have seen, and someone may be sent to check on the Man, but you will stay away from him.”

Legolas struggled for self-control. “We are the ones who have been sent to Dale to find out what is happening here,” he said sharply. “I am as capable of searching the Man’s shop, for instance, as anyone else is.”

“He is probably just a reasonably honest merchant trying to earn a living,” Beliond snapped. “He looks foul, but then many Men do. And we will do nothing until Eilian has had a chance to talk to King Bram. Searching the shop of one of Bram’s people is not likely to endear us to him.” Legolas opened his mouth to protest but was forestalled when the town’s bells began to ring again. “We need to go back to meet Eilian and Maltanaur,” Beliond announced, and Legolas realized he was right. He would hold his tongue until he had had a chance to tell Eilian what they had found. With his mouth clamped tightly shut, he followed Beliond back toward the palace.

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